Liveability and the Black Squat Movement

“it’s all about belonging: even now, who belongs where is often based on who belonged to whom. i sometimes wonder how i get away with living while black.” — Evie Shockley, improper(ty) behavior in the new black

The preceding epigraph frames this piece on the squatting actions of the Dutch Caribbean community in the Bijlmer—a neighbourhood of the borough of Amsterdam South-East—that took place between 1970-1980, as well as issues of liveability and habitability the squatting actions raised. I will focus specifically on a large-scale squatting action in 1974, which was labelled the first organized act of resistance of Dutch Caribbeans in the Netherlands. The involvement of Dutch Caribbeans in the squat movement is often not included in mainstream narratives on squatting actions.

As a black urban space, the Bijlmer represents in the popular imagination a space of pathology, rather than spaces of community. In a 2012 article titled How a Black Neighbourhood Became Blacker, which appeared in De Groene Amsterdammer, the Bijlmer is said to be “the drain of the city.” I analyse the Bijlmer in the first instance not as a static geographical location, but rather as a complex set of political, economic, spatial, racial, gender, and sexual relations that converge on a site that is subsequently marked as black and uninhabitable. Thus, the Bijlmer is in my analysis not only “a concrete place, whose racial and economic formation is material” but also “an imagined place.” By taking this approach, I hope to highlight the various ways in which black dispossession forms the ground for the production of belonging and space.

Throughout the piece I will use Dutch Caribbean and black people interchangeably, rather than the terms “the Surinamese” and “the Antillean” which pepper the newspaper articles, to refer to Dutch Caribbeans of African descent. I use white (Dutch) people to refer to so-called “Autochtonen.” Within Dutch politics, both blackness and whiteness appear as spatially grounded praxes. Even though the Black–White binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, it is the binary that frames most Dutch political thinking, and is, thus, integral to understanding spatial production. Deprived, underprivileged, anti-social geographies, or ‘hot spots’—in other words, sites that are inhabited by dispossessed communities—are systematically described as “black neighbourhoods.” Moreover, the residential outcomes of black people areoften outlined in terms of ghetto or ghettoization, however, the same descriptors are never used in regard to the ‘concentrated’, yet unproblematized, outcomes of white Dutch people living in suburbs. The national spatial imaginary is racially marked: racialized bodies are territorialized through terms like “Allochtoon” and “Autochtoon,” and it is through this territorialization of racialized bodies that spaces are coded as white, or black. As such, blacks and whites are consigned to different physical and metaphorical spaces.

My research is mainly based on the analyses of newspaper reports, pamphlets, folders, and posters on the squatting actions and so-called “Surinamese problem.” The purpose of my analysis is not so much to distil ‘the facts’, that is ‘what actually happened’, rather it is to make anti-black violence as an organizing principle of social life and urban aesthetics legible as historic and systemic, rather than contingent and ad hoc. One of my arguments is that despite the geographical gulf that separates the Dutch Caribbean and the Netherlands, there is a spatial continuity between plantation and the Bijlmer/black ghetto; the spatial logic of the plantation is migratory. By looking at the various ways in which the Dutch Caribbean community negotiated the spatial arrangement of the Netherlands, a built environment that accommodated a different way of life, I hope to show how black people have resisted the logic of containment.

The Bijlmermeer was Amsterdam’s most ambitious project since the construction of the canals in the seventeenth century. The designers of the large-scale housing project had a firm belief in the collective society—a society that citizens would shape together. There was a strong belief that “undesirable behaviour” could be prevented by providing a quality living environment. Bijlmermeer was built in the 1960s to ameliorate severe housing shortage in post-war Amsterdam. The premise was that all the inhabitants of Amsterdam had the right to a good quality home, and urban development should meet this need. The housing shortage had become increasingly pressing due to the dilution of households (more living space per person), rapid population growth, and regional overloading of the housing market—especially in major cities—and migration.

Bijlmermeer was created to serve as a modernist overflow area for the city of Amsterdam. The development consisted mainly of high-rise deck-apartment blocks, built in a honeycomb pattern. The housing was originally intended for white Amsterdam middle-class families. However, by the time the development was finished, the housing preferences of the target demographic had shifted from expensive residential apartment blocks such as those in Bijlmermeer, to lower-priced, low-rise developments in the suburbs. Consequently, many of the spacious apartments remained vacant.

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Around the independence of Suriname, the ‘Bijlmer express’ carried Surinamese people from Zanderij airport to Schiphol airport. This image represents the panic about unregulated migration from Suriname. (Eppo Doeve/Elseviers Magazine, 11-10-1975)

In the period prior to independence, many women, children, and men from Suriname, often from the lower social class, arrived in the Netherlands. Many of whom settled in the then recently completed Bijlmermeer—in particular, the residential block Gliphoeve I, which formed a functional entity with Gliphoeve II. The small Amsterdam housing corporation “Ons Belang,” which managed Gliphoeve I and faced high vacancy rates, accepted newly arrived black families as tenants without the usual restrictions. The influx of black families changed the racial composition of Gliphoeve I considerably. The growing black population in Gliphoeve I set off white flight, which led to increased vacancy rates in Gliphoeve II, managed by housing association “Zomers Buiten.”

In June 1974, after the municipality refused to accede to the demand for proper housing, the Surinamese Action Committee organized a large scale squatting action in Gliphoeve II to cast a sharp light on overcrowding in Gliphoeve I, and the desperate living conditions of thousands of Dutch Caribbeans in the city. Many black families were living in very poor conditions in boarding houses, which housing speculators considered prized property, and overcrowded reception centres. Many of the boarding houses were poorly maintained, and had to be closed down because they were fire risks. Nevertheless, landlords received significant subsidies from the municipality: fl. 2400 per family of six per month to house Dutch Caribbean families. This form of government subsidized housing lined the pockets of slum landlords, and had nothing to do with social support. Black people were thus not only consumers of accommodation services in the housing market, but also a profitable commodity in a racialized system of housing.

The interests of white people influenced housing policy considerably. A long-established ‘closed neighbourhood’ regulation was in effect in Amsterdam, which left foreigners with no hope of acquiring housing in certain parts of the city. Moreover, housing associations in the Bijlmer had been pursuing a fairly overt politics of blocking, determining which residential blocks were allowed to become black and which blocks had to remain white. Different criteria were applied to black people who squatted apartments in black blocks than those who squatted apartments in white blocks. In the latter case, black squatters could sometimes get a residence permit in a black block.

With very few options, Dutch Caribbeans were either forced to stay in boarding houses, communal barracks, monasteries, camps of the Department of Work Implementation (Dienst Uitvoering van Werk-kampen), woonoorden, that is ‘designated (provisional) settlements for a certain category of persons’, or rent a house that fell outside of the social housing stock. Very often, however, Dutch Caribbeans moved in with relatives or friends, most of whom were housed temporarily or living in a squatted apartment. The housing shortage, the deplorable conditions in boarding houses, the municipal requirements to qualify for housing, which severely limited the already poor options for young, unmarried Dutch Caribbeans, the high level of vacancy in Bijlmermeer, and the fact that housing associations refused to rent to Dutch Caribbeans in the Bijlmer district due to an already high concentration of black people in the Gliphoeve I prompted the squatting action Gliphoeve II.

The Bijlmer squatters forced the Executive Council of Amsterdam (the mayor and the members of the municipal executive) to negotiate. They demanded housing permits for all squatters and support for the socially disadvantaged among them. The City Council, however, argued that housing for Dutch Caribbeans should be regulated at national level. The Council asked Central Government to provide the necessary support towards the housing of the overseas citizens. The migration flow arose, according to the Council, under a treaty made by the Netherlands—not Amsterdam—with the territories. Therefore, it was the task of Central Government to provide a solution. As the arrival of black families met with a lot of resistance among the local population, the Ministry of CRM (Culture, Recreation, and Social Work) struggled to find accommodation for Dutch Caribbeans.

Alphons Levens, coordinator of the Surinamese foundation Best, remarked: “We acknowledge that the Dutch government is very much struggling with a large flow of immigrants from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles, however, the government is also responsible for an unemployment rate in Suriname of 35 per cent, for the bad educational system, and lack of proper housing there: the causes of this exodus from Suriname to the Netherlands.”

In August 1974, Mayor Samkalden and Councillor Kuijpers presented the broad outlines of what they called “a Surinamese relief plan”: Gliphoeve would be entirely earmarked for black people. White people who were still living there would receive assistance with relocation. The squatters were allowed to stay temporarily in the squatted apartments. It was agreed that the municipality would determine, within two weeks, and in consultation with the ‘Beheersraad’ (a welfare organization for Dutch Caribbeans in the Bijlmermeer), which of the squatters were allowed to retain their ‘illegally’ acquired property. Councillor L. Kuypers said: “If it is socially responsible, they can stay, if it’s not then they must vacate the property and efforts will be made to secure proper accommodation elsewhere.”

Many apartments housed not only the nuclear family (parents and children), but also the extended Caribbean family. The apartments in Gliphoeve, however, were not built to accommodate such a family configuration. Back then, standard dwellings in the Netherlands were designed for a family with a maximum of four children.

Gliphoeve suffered from overcrowding. Moreover, overcrowding exposed and accentuated the architectural design flaws. First, the massive residential blocks had proven very difficult to manage due to changes that were made to the original design. During the construction of the development, it was decided to increase the number of apartment units (in order to increase the potential income from rents) by adding extra floors to the buildings. The throat of the refuse chute system wasn’t wide enough. Garbage would get stuck. Waste collection services were inadequate. The elevator capacity was insufficient to service the buildings properly. If elevators were put out of order, it would affect a significant numbers of residents. Additionally, it was both difficult and expensive to maintain the tracts of parkland surrounding the blocks.

According to the residents, housing corporations “Ons Belang” and “Zomers Buiten,” who managed the Gliphoeve I and II, neglected the block. The buildings were not cleaned regularly. Repairs were not made immediately, and the materials used were of poor quality. On the other hand, malfunctions in ‘white’ residential blocks were repaired much faster.

In September 1974, the Bijlmermeer Driemond branch of the Labour Party issued a policy note with a summary of the problems that “the high concentration of Surinamese caused.” It stated that the Dutch Caribbeans who were coming to Netherlands, did not know how to live—by Dutch standards—in residential blocks. ‘Anti-social’ behaviour, according to the note, was widespread, which was reflected in the presence of pollution, vandalism, acts of aggression without discernible motive, noise pollution, unemployment, rent arrears, and so on. The note exposes a tendency to ascribe all the associated social effects of structural processes to a physically identifiable, and therefore most visible group: black people. A high concentration of (economically precarious) black people in a particular area was seen as having a negative impact on liveability. Put differently, according to the note, black people rendered liveable spaces unliveable by engaging in unhealthy or anti-social living practices. Black communal living practices were considered, to reference Evie Shockley, improper(ty) behaviour.

Social and economic disparities were conceptualized as problems caused by the living practices of black people, who, due to poor Dutch language skills and a lack of knowledge of the living and working climate, were incapable of coping with the demands of Dutch society. By diagnosing black communal living practices as an explanation for socio-economic disparities, the policy note reproduced the racist “culture of poverty” thesis, which explains black impoverishment as a product of black culture rather than deeper structural conditions—such as, anti-black racism, capitalism, housing policies, urban and housing design, and lack of proper care-taking. More fundamentally, the note expressed a view that assumes the spaces ‘outside of the ghetto’ to be the spaces where life is ‘properly lived’. This ‘normal way of life’, which largely depends on the spatialization of anti-black/racial violence within sites inhabited by dispossessed communities, leads to understanding both place and blackness as static and immutable.

On July 1, 1975, councillors Kuijpers and De Cloe launched together with the Surinamese ‘Beheersraad’ the “reconstruction” of the Gliphoeve. Ambitious plans were drawn up to transform the Gliphoeve into a liveable community. The refuse chute system was going to be substantially improved. The elevator capacity of Gliphoeve was going to be increased by building additional elevators. A second boiler room was going to be built in order to relieve the boiler, which could not cope with the high heat and water consumption. Predictably, one of the action lines of the programme was a course on “how to live in an apartment.”

A concern with improper living practices surfaces in several of the articles I examined. In a newspaper report entitled “Towering problems surround the most expensive high-rise in the world,” authors Henny Korver and Ron Govaars remark that:

“It was not easy for the new residents. Transferred per Bijlmer express at a fast pace from their simple wooden erfwoning (an erfwoning is a nigger house, either on a plantation or on a farm in Paramaribo, Donselaar Dictionary of Dutch in Suriname 1667-1876) in tropical Suriname to a concrete entity full of western comfort in a chilly damp country. An environment full of push buttons, switches, buzzers and bells. It had never been made clear to them, however, how to live in an apartment building.”

Korver and Govaars contend, in essence, that black people moved from the slave estate directly to “western comfort.” The authors betray a view of space-time that maps the configuration of the plantation onto the deprived and unliveable residential block Gliphoeve. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that it’s said that Gliphoeve I was named after the Surinamese plantation Gravestein after it was renovated in 1983. The reconstruction plans of the 1975 essentially rendered the block a “social project,” a “residential school” where black families could learn, over a period of two years, while supervised by caretakers and social workers, how to live in a Dutch house. Black people were expected to practice living on civil society’s normative whiteness’ terms—which had already placed them outside the larger social order of the nation.

André Haakmat, too, seemingly subscribes to the idea that black people have to learn how to live in the Netherlands. He notes in the article “Surinamese voices from the Bijlmer”:

“Life in Suriname, after all, is quite differently, without elevators, staircases, mailboxes, interior walkways, and so on. In a building that by its design facilitates isolation you need to live differently. In Suriname, there is space. Life is filled with much more noise. You can talk louder, laugh boisterously, sing, and make music. You don’t have to consider the noise level so as to ensure good neighbourly relations. But if no one tells you that here you live in apartment buildings where you can hear sounds coming from other apartments, then you simply don’t know, and you continue to live in the same way as in Suriname. You have to learn how to live here.”

Yet, what are the conditions that would make life here liveable for black communities? What does it mean to “live here” when black people are “constantly being made to exist out-of-place”? Or, in the words of Haakmat, when black people “are being warehoused like cargo”? The expectations of appropriate living practices are, in fact, part of the ongoing project of anti-black racism that aims to regulate and discipline black intimate life.

The belief that a high concentration of black families in white areas would lead to a decline in ‘liveability’ and racial tensions meant that municipality and government opposed unregulated housing of black families in white areas. Consequently, the municipal response to black squatters in the predominantly white Transvaal district and in the blackened Bijlmer differed in intensity and scope. Black squatters in the Transvaal district faced more eviction actions. The municipality said emphatically, however, that its actions to evict squatted houses in the Transvaal district were definitely not directed against black squatters. The actions were directed against illegal house occupation by anyone. Yet, there were ample squatting actions, in all parts of Amsterdam, against which the municipality took no action. Moreover, the white residents of the Transvaal district did not object to squatting actions in their neighbourhood per se, but to black squatting actions. The Transvaal residents argued that they were inconvenienced by black squatters, who often occupied a home with a large group. Despite assertions to the contrary, it was against black squatters specifically that the municipality was taking action.

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The two orphans. Interior Minister Geertsema (VVD). Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles are depicted as babies and the minister as a grandfather. The text in the comic bubble reads: “Personally, I am happy to get rid of them , but then I’ll get in trouble with the custody council in Washington!”  (Opland/De Volkskrant, 13-02-1973)

The municipal and public response make several things clear: the right of belonging of white squatters was never in question—they were not told to go back to where they came from; white squatters were not subjected to dispersal policies, or the 5 percent regulation. Though white squatters and the municipality were locked in violent struggles over the development plan for property in Amsterdam, these violent struggles were, to reference Fanon, “little family quarrels.” Both the white squatters and the municipality were anchored by their common relation to whiteness as a form of property, which secures their belonging. State violence against white squatters was contingent, sparked by their violation of the established rules of democratic process—whereas state violence against black people is gratuitous. In 1975, when thousands of white squatters and their supporters revolted in the Nieuwmarkt, the police were proud to state that “minimum force was used” to subdue the mass uprising and that “no shot was fired.” However, when Glenn Gilles, a young Surinamese man who was mentally ill, did not want to leave a bus, he was shot by the police.

Geen ontruiming! De bijlmerkrakers roepen op tot steun (1974).jpg
No eviction! The Bijlmer squatters are calling for support. From Bijlmermeer to Jordaan (among others boarding house de tijdgeest) and Nieuwmarkt, residents are now being threatened with evictions. Stop this mismanagement by the municipality and landlords. Housing is not a favour but a right. Join the demonstrations. Committee “solidarity with the Bijlmer squatters”

The  strategic coalitions between white squatters, black squatters, and other collectives, though crucial in mobilizing broad protest, rendered black positionality unthought. A politics that is based on notions of shared victimhood mystifies the structural relation that positions black life “below, or beyond Humanity’s distribution of values.” This has significant consequences for how the squatting actions of black people are read.

In 1972, Th. J. A. M. van Lier of the Labour Party said: “I am pleased that the Surinamese have squatted something in the Netherlands, since the Dutch squatted Suriname centuries ago.” Van Lier’s remark draws attention, perhaps inadvertently, to the structural relation that positions black life: that is, the history of property rights in the Americas. Van Lier’s comment highlights that to analyse the squatting actions solely at the scale of the city, or even the country, and only in terms of housing will hide other histories and knowledges. In their communiqués, black squatters made connections between the housing policy, (Native American) dispossession in the Americas, slavery, Dutch capitalism, and colonial geography. The association Stanvaste, an association of Surinamese people in Amsterdam, noted:

“The government, among others, pretends that we are also to blame for the housing crisis. The fascist factions like the Dutch People’s Union and the New Right consequently say: “They’re taking our homes, jobs and wealth.” But who is actually doing the taking? In our country, Suriname, all our resources are being plundered, and starvation wages still exist. These are the practices of the very same capitalists who are demolishing housing in order to build their offices and banks.”

Moreover, the Surinamese community noted, certainly not without acrimony, that Amsterdam was once the owner of Suriname and could therefore do something in return.

Squatting actions raise not only the question of property, but also the question of belonging and belonging as property. To return to the epigraph with which I began: “who belongs where is often based on who belonged to whom.” To be ‘properly’ placed is largely a function of whiteness as “a form of positive residence.” Whiteness itself operates, as Cheryl Harris argues, as a form of property, a set of legal relations and social networks of belonging that have historically been protected by government policies and law. In order to understand black squatting actions, we have to attend to the plantation logic that apprehends black people as improper(ty). Black people’s legacy as property continues to haunt the idea of belonging and is the void at the centre of legal personhood and Dutch citizenship. Consider, for instance, former Member of Parliament Hero Brinkman’s comments: Brinkman called the Netherlands Antilles a “corrupt crooks nest” that should be sold on (the Dutch version of eBay). Any analysis of black political actions has to attend to the role legal reason played in the invention of the “black citizen,” whose emergence was mediated through property relations.

The enslaved occupied an ambiguous position within the law: the law defined them at once as chattel property and agents capable of committing crimes. The status of the emancipated ‘subject’ within the law was equally ambiguous: a condition of “burdened inpiduality.” In The Obligations of Freedom and the Limits of Legal Equality, Priya Kandaswamy, following Saidiya Hartman, notes:

“legal recognition as citizens worked to constrain and curtail [these] more expansive possibilities of freedom by locking freedom for black people into an idiom defined by obligation, indebtedness, and responsibility. Rather than mitigate the significance of racial difference in the national imagination, the conferral of citizenship rights collaborated in “the persistent production of blackness as abject, threatening, servile, dangerous, dependent, irrational, and infectious” and obliged freed people to shoulder the responsibilities and burdens of perpetually having to demonstrate their preparedness for and deservingness of citizenship in a context where their blackness marked them as otherwise.”

Emancipation provided a basis for the state’s total involvement in all aspects of black life, and obscured state responsibility for the continued abuses and inequities of slavery. Moreover, liberal rationality rendered the psychic investment in self-regulation and ‘gainful employment’ as coextensive with freedom, belonging.

The “black citizen” continues to occupy an ambiguous position. As Dutch citizens, after all, Dutch Caribbeans couldn’t come here “illegally” like foreigners. Nevertheless, “black citizens” are considered foreigners: first referred to as “rijksgenoot,” that is fellow subject of the kingdom, which suggests a hierarchy without questioning the unity of the kingdom, and now as non-western Allochtoon. The black citizen’s (non-)position within the kingdom troubles the distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” anti-black violence, and likewise the supposedly strict separation between police and military functions. For example, during the 1969 labour protests, the Dutch government dispatched 300 marines to quell the uprising in Curaçao. What the statement of the Stanvaste association makes clear is that from the perspective of the black person anti-black violence collapses any sort of meaningful distinction between “interior” and “exterior,” “belonging” and “non-belonging.” For “black citizens,” civil society itself is the site of recurrent racial terror.